Share This Article

Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate, By Susan P. Mattern, University of California Press, $35.

There is a saying about history: “The only thing new is found in ancient history.” The wisdom behind the statement is that while writings about the recent past are simply a variation on the writings about the more distant past, new discoveries about ancient civilizations are frequently turned up thanks to archeologists. Susan Mattern, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Georgia, has disproved this saying with the publication of a first-class analysis of Rome’s grand strategy.

Mattern has carefully examined Roman literature to determine the nature of the Roman leaders’ thinking on strategic subjects. The genius of the book is that the author has assumed from the start that Roman leaders thought differently about strategy than we do. Her first task was, therefore, to determine the Roman strategic mind. Mattern then defined a period that has extensive contemporary literature to study, and correctly settled on the era of the Principate, 31 b.c.­a.d. 235. She next identified Rome’s strategic decision-makers during that era—the emperor and his advisers. Next came an examination of how this highest class of Roman citizens was educated—how their minds were initially shaped.

At this point, a Roman military history different from what has been dominant for the last two centuries begins to unfold. Mattern reveals educational instruction for Rome’s ruling elite during the Principate as differing somewhat from the earlier Greek practices. The Roman upper-strata youth were tutored almost exclusively in literature and rhetoric. The author then turns to the world of cartography and comes to the conclusion that Roman strategy was produced without our modern notion of maps. Whereas modern students visualize Rome’s growth with relevant two-dimensional representations of the earth’s surface at their elbows, Rome’s strategic decision-makers were largely dealing with odological, one-dimensional representations of the terrain or simply previously written itineraries. These and other very basic realizations prove Mattern’s point that it is essential to define the Roman strategic mind before we critique, or even attempt to interpret, Roman strategy.

Rome’s leaders thought about strategy in very different ways than we do. Roman leaders did not have an accurate grasp of their vast empire’s geography. They were unskilled in logistics or other essential disciplines now fundamental to the strategist’s thinking. So, it is not surprising that they did not express their strategic goals or plans in recognizable geopolitical, economic, and military terms. For example, while we perceive threats that call for deterrence, they perceived insults to Rome that called for revenge. While we produce international alliances aimed at defending a region, they produced offensive campaigns of slaughter and destruction aimed at terrorizing existing or potential opponents. This excellent book contains many more fresh ideas about the ancients.